A Cautious Man
November 01, 2008
Modern Day Know-Nothings
First, a little history:

Know-Nothing Movement, a nativist political movement in the United States in the 1850s. It was organized to oppose the great wave of immigrants who entered the United States after 1846. Know-Nothings claimed that the immigrants—who were principally Irish and Roman Catholic—threatened to destroy the American experiment. The Roman Catholic church, they charged, was subservient to a foreign prince (the pope), it was growing in power, and it potentially could exert political control over a large group of people. Such nativist sentiments had long existed among many Americans, but they had never before been expressed in such powerful form.

The McCain campaign seems to be based on resentment and fear-mongering. There is an unhealthy dose of the same kind of racial/religious hatred that was a staple of the original Know-Nothings. When Sarah Palin launches into her routine about "yet another radical professor from [Obama's] neighborhood", Professor Rashid Khalidi, she does so with an emphasis on, gosh darn it, the foreignness of his name -

She manages to mangle his name, and spread discredited talking points, but what struck me was how this chorus of "boos" starts just as she stumbles through his name. Were these folks really all up-to-date on who she was trying (albeit incorrectly) to name? Or did the mere mention of someone named "Rashid" trigger a Two Minutes Hate type of reaction from a fully-primed Palin/McCain crowd? I think it's the latter.

A piece in today's New York Times notes that the religious hatred being stirred up by Obama's opponents is similar to that used by the twentieth century's heirs to the Know-Nothings - those who attacked Al Smith, the first Catholic to run as a majjor party nominee for President. In an essay entitled "In Untruths About Obama, Echoes of a Distant Time", Samuel Freedman gives reasons why that we cannot dismiss that type of fear-mongering as simply an "artifact of a benighted past":

The first is that the climate of anti-Catholic bigotry, which ran from the refined arena of The Atlantic magazine to the cross burnings of the Ku Klux Klan, not only contributed to Smith’s crushing defeat by Herbert Hoover but also helped keep any other Catholic from mounting a serious run for the presidency until John F. Kennedy in 1960. The hate campaign, in other words, worked.

As for the second point, scholars of Smith’s career and of American Catholicism say nothing in presidential history since 1928 more closely resembles the smearing of Al Smith than the aura of anti-Muslim agitation that has swirled around Barack Obama these past two years.

The insinuations of disloyalty to America, the caricature of the candidate as less than genuinely American — these tactics could have come from the playbook of Smith’s basest opponents, the scholars say.

As Colin Powell wisely condemned in endorsing Senator Obama a few weeks ago, the modern "Know Nothings" start with stoking fear of Muslims, before moving on to then label Senator Obama as one:
The biggest single difference may be the postmodern aspect of the attacks against Mr. Obama. He is vilified not for the religion he follows but for the one he doesn’t, and much of his campaign’s energy has gone into reiterating that he is a Christian. Either way, the underlying premise of the rumors remains that a Muslim is unfit to be president.

“What is similar in Smith’s time is that there was a widespread belief there was something dangerous about electing a Catholic as president,” said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University historian who is the author of “Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928.” “You couldn’t be a good American and serve American interests if you were a Catholic, because you were beholden to a foreign potentate called the pope and Catholicism held autocratic tenets.

“Likewise today, there is a widespread belief that somehow you cannot be a good American and be a Muslim at the same time, that being a Muslim means you have loyalties outside the United States — and, like Catholics in the 1920s, they are dangerous loyalties to militant groups seeking to do harm. There’s no truth to the allegations, then or now, but they are tenaciously held.”
. . .

Smith’s opponents conflated his Catholic faith with his Irish heritage, urban roots and even New York accent to cast him outside the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, small-town norms of America. Mr. Obama, of course, is of mixed race and has a Muslim middle name, Hussein, which has been flourished by some Republicans as proof of his foreignness.

“The most remarkable parallel to 1928 has to do with the idea that Smith was one of ‘those people,’ that the people he represented weren’t real Americans,” said Mr. Slayton, a professor of American history at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. “And when Sarah Palin talks about the ‘real America’ now, I hear an echo of that.”

At the end, there is advice from Al Smith himself, on how to deal with this. It's advice that I wish more news organizations would follow, because I get the sense that it's impolite to point out the nastiness of the attacks on the "otherness" of people who don't meet the demographic that the Palin/McCain campaign is targeting.
If there is a lesson from Al Smith about all this, then it came during a speech he delivered on Sept. 20, 1928, in Oklahoma City.

“This country, to my way of thinking, cannot be successful if it ever divides on sectarian lines,” he declared. “If there are any considerable number of our people that are going to listen to appeals to their passion and to their prejudice, if bigotry and intolerance and their sister vices are going to succeed, it is dangerous for the future life of the Republic. And the best way to kill anything un-American is to drag it out into the open, because anything un-American cannot live in the sunlight.”



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